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Supporters hope concern over Flaco's death generates support for 'bird safe' building measures

This stock photo shows a pigeon at a window.
Adobe STock
This stock photo shows a pigeon at a window.

Lawmakers in Albany hope the recent death of a Central Park Zoo owl will generate support for two bills that would place requirements on state-owned buildings to make them less likely to be the cause of fatal bird collisions.

Flaco, a Eurasian eagle-owl, was found dead last week on a Manhattan sidewalk, more than a year after he escaped his zoo enclosure. Zoologists confirmed that he died from a traumatic impact after striking a building.

"His death is now teaching the community about the magnitude of the crisis, that buildings themselves present to bird survival," said Ithaca Democrat Anna Kelles, who is sponsoring the legislation in the Assembly.

Studies have shown that the population of North American birds has declined nearly 30% since 1970. Researchers say habitat loss, threats from cats, and collisions with glass are the leading causes of bird fatalities.

Kelles has a degree in environmental studies and lived in South America for four years, where she learned about the critical role of birds in the ecosystem. As pollinators, she said, birds are necessary for the quality of human life.

"We cannot live without them," she said. "This is a perfect example of, hey, we can actually do something. Right now. Right here."

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If the proposed Safe Buildings Act (recently renamed the "Flaco Act") passes in the state Legislature and results in fewer bird fatalities, Kelles said the hope is that it will inspire private building owners to make changes, too.

"The state owns enough buildings that we could monitor and show that the amount of collisions that are occurring on state buildings is significantly declining," she said. "And there's enough scientific evidence, regardless, to show that it will make a huge difference."

The first bill would require newly constructed or renovated state-owned buildings to incorporate bird-friendly designs, such as decals or frosted glass. A companion bill is aimed at reducing light pollution from buildings by requiring them to have shields or motion-activation for external lighting at night.

A 2021 study of bird deaths in Chicago found that turning some lights off in buildings at night can reduce bird mortality rates by around 60%.

Further testing on Flaco's remains are expected to determine if disease or the ingestion of toxins contributed to the owl's death.

Beth Adams joined WXXI as host of Morning Edition in 2012 after a more than two-decade radio career. She was the longtime host of the WHAM Morning News in Rochester. Her career also took her from radio stations in Elmira, New York, to Miami, Florida.